Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

“Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Here it is! This is my draft for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Subject: Superhuman, Character: a cheesemaker. Word limit is 2500 words.

Here is their genre description for a Fairy Tale as per the contest guidelines:

A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).

I’d love your feedback on the story, how well it works with my assignment elements, and any other considerations. I still have three days to submit it, so I have time to apply any changes I need to! Without further ado, here it is:

Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen
2496 words

Once upon a stormy night a witch stirred up a foul smelling concoction in a cauldron as black as mould. Thunder rattled the tiny windows of her cottage in the woods and the wind outside howled. Inside the kitchen a fire crackled and, to anyone left out in the gale, its blaze would have appeared like the glowing red eyes of the devil herself flashing in the pitch. There was no one outside, though. The witch had even brought in her cow, Etheldred, who stood next to the wash basin contentedly chewing her cud and watching the fuss.

“That’s three turns widdershins,” Etheldred said, for she was a magical cow and never could keep her opinions to herself. “With the wooden spoon, not the iron. Do you want to spoil the whole batch?”

“I know that,” the witch snapped and quickly dropped the iron poker she’d been about to thrust into the brew. “What do you care if I spoil it, anyway?”

“Whose teats did you squeeze with your clammy hands to fill that crock, you half-witted hag?”

“Half-wit, am I?” Flames licked up around the fat belly of the pot as the witch muttered over her potion. “Managed to get the best of you, didn’t I?”

A gobbet of twice digested grass hung from Ethelred’s mouth. “I happen to like being a cow,” she lied.

“It certainly suits you. Saggy teats and all.”

“They were good enough for your husband, Frances Stein.” The cow licked her lips lasciviously and let a steaming pile of dung fall to the kitchen floor.

“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes.” Witch Stein poured a vial of alarmingly yellow liquid into the cauldron. “Anyway, you can have him once this spell is finished. I’m making myself a new husband.”

“That,” the cow said, “was Bile of Basilisk.”

“That’s what you said to use!” The witch gave a horrified look at the evil-looking liquid. “Who’s the cheese expert here?”

If a cow could grin, then Etheldred was grinning. “Banshee would have been better.”

“You baggy bovine!” the witch glowered. “You’re trying to sabotage me.”

“You did turn me into a cow.”

“If this doesn’t work,” the witch said, waving the wooden spoon at her companion, “you’re going to stay that way for the rest of your udder-lugging life.”

“Relax,” Etheldred said. “It’s curdling isn’t it?”

“Milk thistle to thicken,” the witch held up another vial. Then her eyes flashed with menace. “Unless you have another suggestion? I hear cows’ stomachs produce excellent rennet.”

“Rennet is terribly old-fashioned,” the cow blinked lazily, not in the least worried by the witch’s threats. “Besides, I’m using all of my stomachs.”

Witch Stein poured the milk thistle into the pot and watched the mixture coagulate. After a time, she prodded the jellied mass with her spoon and said, “Looks about right.”

“Get on with it, then,” the cow chided. “This weather isn’t going to last all night.”

“You mind your own magic,” the witch said.  With leather mitted hands she heaved the stinking cauldron over to the kitchen table and dumped its contents without ceremony. “This bit is mine.”

Slowly, surely, the witch began to mould and sculpt the mass of fresh cheese. After a time, the shape on the table took a new form. The cheese became a large, slightly misshapen man. Once she was satisfied, Witch Stein hauled out a coil of fine, hair-like metal fibers and used them to pierce the body in a few vital locations: the head, the heart, the belly, and the groin.

“What are you stabbing it for?” the cow brayed. “This isn’t one of those black magic dolls, is it? You said I could have Ralphie and I want him in one piece!”

It was Witch Stein’s turn to say, “Relax.”

She uncoiled the wires and attached them to a strange looking harness over the fireplace. More wires climbed from the harness, up the chimney, and onto the roof. The witch rubbed her hands together and looked out the window at the roiling storm. “Now, we wait.”

No sooner had she said that, then the air of the room fizzed and crackled and a smell like old coins replaced the stink of the cheese. Forks of hot white light shot from the wires on the chimney and sparked around the body of the cheese man. Etheldred mooed in alarm as a finger of lightening got too close for comfort.

“My tail is on fire,” she bellowed.

But the witch wasn’t paying the cow any attention. The creature on the table was moving its great lumpy limbs. She clapped her hands ecstatically. “It worked!”

The cheese man sat up and shook its fat, misshapen head.

“It’s alive!” Witch Stein shrieked and she did a little jig. “You thought I couldn’t do it, admit it!”

“Well,” said the cow as she gingerly dipped her tail in her water bucket. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”

“Neither is Ralphie,” the witch snapped. “I don’t need him to be handsome, I just need him to be big and strong and to follow my every command.”

“He’s certainly big,” the cow said. The cheese man’s head seemed to be growing closer to the thatched roof. “And with that recipe, he’ll be stronger than any human man. So that’s my end of the bargain. Now change me back!”

But the witch was too busy admiring her handiwork to worry about Etheldred. The cheese man tore the mess of metal wires away and stood almost to his full height. His neck bent awkwardly and his shoulders pressed against the ceiling. He looked at the witch with eyes of dry curd, and he spoke.

“Mama?” The cheese man’s voice belched out in a cloud of air that reeked like rancid feet.

Etheldred cackled as well as she could with her cow’s mouth and dropped another pile of dung.

“I’m not your mother, you oaf.” The witch poked him in the belly with her wooden spoon. “I’m your wife, Frances. Now quit lazing about, we’ve got work to do!”

“Hungry!” the cheese man grunted. And with that, he reached out his huge, lumpy hand, grabbed Etheldred the cow, and gobbled her all up.

The witch said, “Huh.”

The cheese man suddenly doubled in size, stood up to his full height, and crashed through the wall of Frances Stein’s kitchen. He lumbered into the night wearing the thatched roof like a hat, eating rocks and trees and whatever wild animals he scared up along the way.

“That’s a shame,” said the witch. She hitched her sleeves up to her elbows, grabbed her broom, and followed after her cheese husband.

The storm had abated and dawn was breaking by the time Witch Stein caught up with the cheese man. He moved quickly on legs that were growing longer every second, but he left a path of ruin that was easy enough to follow. The witch found him sitting on his huge, bumpy bottom in the middle of town, plucking the roofs of houses and snacking on the terrified villagers inside.

“Stop that this instant!” The witch flew her broom up to the cheese man’s head and buzzed around him like an angry bee. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”

The cheese man swatted at her clumsily. “Hungry,” he moaned.

“I’ll get you some food,” the witch promised, an idea brewing in her brain. “But first, you have to give me back that cow.” 

The cheese man blinked his curd eyes at her.

“The one you ate in my kitchen,” she prompted.

The cheese man opened his cavernous mouth, reached a hand down his throat, and pulled out Etheldred. He plunked her on the ground, sodden and stinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet, now the size of schooners, and lumbered in the direction of the next town eating everything in his path.

“Disgusting,” the cow said.

“Quit your whining,” the witch said. “I need one of your food spells.”

“What I need is a washing-up spell,” Etheldred replied, dripping with whey and misery. “I’ll never get this smell out.”

“Can you do a never-ending bread loaf?”

“Bread loafs, salt pots, cheese wheels, you name it.” Even in her soggy state, the cow wasn’t above a little bragging. “If you can eat it, I can make it last forever.”

“I’m going to change you back,” the witch said begrudgingly. “But I need your help.”

“I suppose I’m in no position to bargain,” the cow said.

Witch Stein snapped her fingers and lifted the curse. Etheldred, still dripping but looking slightly more human, stretched her back and thrust out her buxom bosom. “That’s better,” she said. “Now what’s on the menu?”

The two witches went to work scouring the town for oats, molasses, and flour. Etheldred was as good as her word, and in a few hours they had an enchanted loaf of bread the size of a cart horse.

“Big and dense,” the kitchen witch declared. “Just like your cheese husband.”

“And Ralphie, too, while we’re on the subject.” Witch Stein rapped Etheldred on the head with her broom. “Now shut your gob and help me carry this thing.”

The witches wrapped the loaf up with thick ropes, strung it between two broomsticks, and flew—a little wobbly and with a lilt to the left—after the cheese man. They followed the path of broken trees, flattened cottages, and absent livestock all the way to a river. The cheese man, who was now the size of a large hillock, knelt on the ground beside the water guzzling for all he was worth.

“What are you doing now, you great galumph,” Witch Stein bellowed at her cheese husband. “I brought you food that will never run out. Now it’s time for you to get to work!”

The cheese man peered at her with his curd eyes and blinked. He snatched the loaf of bread from between the witches’ brooms, nearly spilling them both into the river, and took a colossal bite. Before he finished chewing, the loaf sprang back to its original size with a pop. The cheese man took another bite, watched the loaf grow back again, and grinned a cheesy grin.

Then he tossed the loaf aside and guzzled at the river again. Witch Stein and Etheldred looked at one another and shrugged.

Soon, the raging river became a babbling brook, the brook became a trickle, and then the trickle dried up completely. He’d guzzled up all of the water for miles and miles. The cheese man sat up and coughed out a cloud of dust.

“Thirsty,” he said and made like he was going to lumber off again in search of more water.

“Don’t you dare!” Witch Stein flew up and buzzed in his ear like a gnat. “You stay right where you are. Etheldred, can you do that trick with water, too?”

“Water, milk, ale,” Etheldred puffed out her chest. “If you can drink it, I can—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Witch Stein landed her broom and hitched up her skirts. “What do we need?”

“Why should I help you again?” Etheldred put her hands on her hips and blew a strand of whey soaked hair off of her large, crooked nose. “I kept my side of the bargain. The deal is done.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find Ralphie and turn him into the toad he is!”

Etheldred landed beside Witch Stein and muttered, “I’m starting to think that Ralphie is more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Well, at least you didn’t have to marry him to figure that out,” snapped Frances. “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“We’re going to need a big pot,” Etheldred said. “A really big pot. And after this, you’re going to owe me one.”

“You heard the woman!” Witch Stein clapped her hands at the cheese man. “Go fetch us the biggest pot you can find. And be quick about it!”

The cheese giant picked up his loaf of bread and lumbered off into the distance, munching away, and leaving slightly less devastation in his wake. It took three whole weeks for him to return, by which time Etheldred and Frances had put aside their differences and more or less become friends.

“Now that’s a cauldron!” Etheldred said when the cheese man trundled up to them with a vessel the size of a house. “Where did you find that?”

“Giants,” said the cheese man, and that was all they got out of him on the matter. But Witch Stein heard, a few years later, about a stone giant named Hymir who had developed a sudden, and rather ferocious, aversion to dairy products.

“What’ll it be,” Etheldred asked, pulling herself up onto the lip of the cauldron. “Water, milk, tea?”

Witch Stein looked up at her mountain of a husband and shook her head. “Better make it wine,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman, Frankie!” Etheldred cackled and she waved her hands over the pot, reciting a complicated incantation that involved a little too much hip wiggling and bosom shimmying for Frances’s taste.

Soon the cauldron was brimming with a fragrant, dark red vintage.

“My best merlot,” Etheldred winked. “It pairs very well with cheese.”

The cheese giant picked up the cauldron and drank. He drank and he drank but, just as the kitchen witch promised, the cauldron never emptied. Then, with a belch that shook the birds out of the sky, he smiled. “Good.”

“Finally!” Witch Stein threw her hands up in the air. She pulled a roll of parchment out of her bosom and thrust it at her cheese husband. “Gather these materials, Cheese-Head. We have to build a bigger house before we do anything else.”

“Wow!” Etheldred exclaimed as the cheese man lurched away on his first mission, carrying the over-sized wine flask and bread loaf with him. “He can read?”

“Grab your broom, woman.” Frankie Stein launched herself into the air. “We’re going to find a nice secluded spot in the mountains. I need space for my laboratory and the hard-to-find magical elements Goudard is going to collect for me. I have hypotheses to test!”

“Goudard?”

“Well I have to call him something besides Cheese-Head.”

“Wait just a minute,” Etheldred said. “You still owe me a favour.”

Frankie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise not to turn Ralph into a toad.”

“Forget Ralph.” Etheldred hopped on her broomstick. The witches zipped over barren fields and flattened forests toward the mountains. A bovine bellow could be heard for miles around, “I want a cheese husband!”

And they would all have lived happily ever after except that Goudard, it turns out, didn’t like being berated and bossed any more than Ralphie had. So he joined the circus, and Frankie Stein had to do her own ingredient collecting. That didn’t stop her from trying to create new husbands, though. Once, she even dug up a cemetery for parts… But that’s another story for another time.

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here. 

“Kneel.” A voice grated in Ev’s ear like rusted metal. The man dug his boot into the back of her knee and forced her to the ground. A guttural scream penetrated the heavy wooden door before her, low and barking. A woman. The flesh at her wrists tore as Ev fought against her restraints.

Cold, hard metal pressed against the base of her skull. “Don’t make me shoot you.”

“If you kill me, she’s going to die.”

“She’s going to die anyway.” The man’s mouth twisted into a jagged-toothed sneer. “It’s the whelp we want.”

He kept his pistol trained on her and unlocked the door. Ev stared past the man at the scene beyond. Blood. Too much blood. Another scream rose up from the fathoms, rising and cresting to crash against the woman’s body. She shook with it.

A priest in dark robes bent his head to speak with the soldier. His eyes met Ev’s, piercing. He nodded. The soldier hauled her to her feet and shoved her inside. The sweltering air stank of shit and iron and sweat. Beads of moisture oozed out of Ev’s skin and burned her eyes.

“Untie her.” The robed man turned his gaze back to the tortured woman, his face relaxed into a subtle smile. Ev wanted to grind his face into the blood-soaked mattress and watch him suffocate. The soldier wrenched her shoulders in their sockets and cut the rope. Another wail from the woman filled the room.

“It’s time.” An ancient looking radio transceiver blinked on the wall behind the man. “You know why you’re here.”

“I need my kit.” Ev rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and rubbed her wrists. Sweat prickled Ev’s neck and rolled between her shoulder blades. Prisoner or not, she had a job to do. “Some water.”

“You need a knife.” The priest indicated a tray next to the bed. Three makeshift blades flickered in the orange light from the woodstove on the back wall. Dirty white leather wrapped around the stainless steel shafts. This wasn’t a delivery room; it was a butchery. One blade had what appeared to be tiny teeth at the tip. A wave of nostalgia flooded through Ev. She wondered if the woman enjoyed skating as a child, before the black robes came. Before the war.

“I’m not doing surgery with a shiv.”

“No.” The priest blinked. “You’re not doing surgery.”

The woman rocked on her hands and knees. The crimson stain on the back of her dress spread like the petals of a gruesome flower. Her screams gave way to a primal growl that tore out of her body like it could carry the baby with it. She was in traction.

“I’m sorry,” Ev said. The woman groaned on, unhearing. Bile burned the back of Ev’s throat when she grasped the grimy leather hilt of the longest blade. Ev motioned to the soldier. “Hold her down.”

The priest nodded and the soldier strode to the head of the bed. He flipped the woman onto her back and put his weight into her body, muscles tensed. The woman’s eyes lolled in their sockets, the surrounding flesh so pale it tinged green. If she died before delivery, the child might, too.

Ev slipped the knife into the woman’s dress and tore the fabric away from her bulging stomach. A lump protruded from one side, above her hip bone. The baby’s head. It’s a mercy, she told herself. Ev pressed the skate blade against the woman’s abdomen and closed her eyes.

“Forgive me.”

Ev plunged the knife into the woman’s womb, braced herself against the bed, and tugged downward. The woman’s body convulsed and she writhed against the soldier. A gurgle escaped her throat and her eyes bulged. Blood and amniotic fluid surged out of the wound, and the last of the woman’s life went with it.

Ev reached inside the cavity. Her fingers found an arm or a leg. She wrapped her hand around the baby’s body and pulled. Hot and wet and screaming the baby came into the world and Ev’s heart nearly burst. She ripped the woman’s dress away from her breasts and placed the baby on her still-warm chest. The infant rooted and latched.

“My daughter.” The priest’s voice cut through Ev’s relief. Acid burned her esophagus and she shuddered.

The soldier relaxed his grip but she stopped him with a word. “No. We’re not finished yet.”

He paused, and that was enough. Ev gripped her blade tightly and slashed upward. The soldier’s throat opened with a hissing spray of more blood. Ev spun and drove the knife into his side. Despite his armour, the blade slid into his flesh more easily than it had the woman’s. She wrenched the blade free and stabbed him again.

The priest shouted and lunged for the transceiver. He wasn’t fast enough. Ev aimed the dead soldier’s pistol at his back. “Don’t fucking move.”

She placed a sodden blanket over the infant and stepped around the bed. She kept the gun on the robed man and grabbed the toothed blade from the table. The man stared at her, wild-eyed. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Patch me in.”

The man fumbled with the transceiver, flipping switches with trembling hands. Static filled the air in place of the woman’s screams. He held the mouthpiece toward her and pressed the call button.

“Mobile Tactical Surgical Hospital zero zero one,” Ev said. “This is Unit Seven. Do you copy?”

“Mitch one here, Unit Seven,” a voice crackled on the other end. “We copy.”

“The women are being held under the radio tower,” Ev said. “Proceed with caution.”

“Roger that, moving in,” the MTSH operator said. “What took you so long, Seven?”

Ev pulled the trigger and the priest crumpled at her feet. She picked up the receiver and said, “I had to deliver a baby.”

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“The Midwife” was my submission for Round Three of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Thriller, Location: a radio tower, Object: ice skates. I didn’t place in the top ten of this round. The judges feedback is below:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1795}  This religious takeover in the minds of writers today seems to be a recurring theme. Thankfully each look at this supremacy is different, but still, it’s very interesting to note. I love the conflict within Ev while she’s forced in to do this work and has to sacrifice the woman to save the baby and give her time to kill the men and deliver her message.

{1651}  The story feels high stakes with many suspenseful moment.

{1689}  I love how Ev’s actions reveal her inner character. The reveal that the pregnant mother so meaningless to the priest and the soldier is equally maddening and chilling. Ev’s swift action to save mother—and child indirectly—is breath-taking.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1795}  When describing the blades, I would actually mention that one of them is a skating blade. When you talk about the one with tiny teeth at the tip and then talk about skating, we think you’re still talking about that particular blade. But then suddenly Ev is cutting the woman open with a skating blade, and then later grabs the toothed blade to threaten the priest. A bit more clarity with regards to what and where the blades are might clear this up.

{1651}  There’s some spots I don’t understand. Did they kidnap Seven to deliver a baby and if so, how does her team know she’s there? How can Seven hold a knife and hold a pistol while breastfeeding a baby? Why didn’t she try to save the mother?

{1689}  Pull back at some point and give us some context. I don’t think that will undermine Ev’s identity or role. But we do need a better sense of what this is all about so that we are not distracted by trying to figure it out.

“Making Suds” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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Note: This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here.

Once upon a time, when stories flowed like rivers and rivers were never what they seemed, there was a girl. Her name was Suds. It wasn’t her real name, but her parents were soap-makers and they thought themselves very clever.

They were also very sad. Suds’ parents longed for another child. In fact, the soap-makers whispered that they were cursed.

Suds knew that was nonsense. But that was the way of grown-ups, she thought, always wishing for more and forgetting what they’ve got.

Then, when Suds was twelve years old, her mother gave birth to a baby boy. Suds loved her brother. Everyone was very happy.

With her parents so distracted, Suds enjoyed her freedom. She roamed the woods outside their village, picked berries, snared rabbits, chased pheasants, and never once thought about making soap.

The weeks turned into months, and her parents’ infatuation with the new baby grew. The family needed money. But neither the mother nor the father could bear to leave the boy, not for a moment.

“Suds, we need you to go down to the river today,” her mother said one morning. She rocked the baby boy and cooed.

“For what?” Suds asked.

“You must leach the lye and make the soap,” her father explained. “Or soon we will starve.”

“Alone?”

“Your brother needs us,” her parents said. “We need you. Please go to the river today.”
Suds collected her tools and glared at the soap-makers.

“Don’t forget your gloves,” her mother said, looking at the baby. “And don’t talk to the Nixe.”

Down at the river, Suds built up a fire. She hauled the great iron tub up over the coals, filled it with water, and waited for the water to boil.

All the while, a creature watched her from the bank. Suds never looked directly at it. If she did, it was sure to start talking to her. River spirits loved to talk to children, especially children who were not with their parents. The thing crept closer. It smelled of rotting fish.

“What are you doing, child?”

Suds ignored the Nixe and stirred the water in the tub. She hummed quietly to herself and waited for the water to boil.

“Where are the grown ones, girl?”

Suds ignored the Nixe and watched the bubbles begin to rise from the bottom of the iron tub. She hummed quietly to herself and shovelled some ashes into the boiling water.

“Let me try, will you?”

At this, Suds looked up. The Nixe cocked its head. Milk-white eyes rolled in sockets of water-logged flesh. The fish smell was much worse up close. Suds knew better than to make a deal with a river spirit. But she longed to go exploring in the forest.

So Suds showed the Nixe how to keep the fire hot, boil the water, scoop the ashes, and skim the lye. And, most importantly, she showed the creature how to protect its delicate skin from burning with the heavy leather gloves. Soon, the creature was doing all the work for her.

“Delightful!” The spirit’s black tongue flashed out between its lips and it tugged at the gloves. “But this soap-making is giving me an appetite. Let us make a deal. I will do your work for you if you bring me something to eat.”

“I can fish,” Suds replied warily.

“I hate fish. All I eat is fish. Cold and slimy and flip-flopping,” the creature said. “No. Bring me a basket of berries from the forest and I will make fifty bars of soap.”

Fifty bars of soap was twice as many as Suds could make in a day. It was a deal worth taking. So she went off to gather berries and enjoy a day in the forest.

When she returned with the berries, the Nixe bared its sharp teeth in a smile. It gobbled the berries up, presented the pile of soaps, and leapt into the river with a splash. Suds carried the soaps home to her parents.

The soap-makers were thrilled. They hugged Suds and praised her and wondered how they had been blessed with such a wonderful daughter. Suds basked in their love and privately vowed to make a deal with the river spirit again tomorrow.

“I will make one hundred bars of soap for you,” the Nixe said the next morning. “If you bring three plump, juicy rabbits to fill my belly.”

Suds knew her snares were full and she looked forward to another day in the woods. She took that bargain, too. And when she returned, the Nixe had all of her soaps prepared. Again, she returned a hero to her parents. The next day the price was six pheasants. Suds thought herself very lucky.

But on the fourth day, the Nixe was harder to please.

“I am very, very hungry,” the river spirit said. “Today I need something more.”

“What is your price?” asked Suds.

“I will make your soaps for the rest of your life,” the Nixe fluttered its gills and sniffed. “But you must bring me the baby.”

“That,” said Suds, “is something I will not do.”

“You will,” said the Nixe. “Or I will have you instead. I am very, very hungry.”

“No!” Suds lunged at the Nixe, but it was a slippery creature and much wilier than the girl. The river spirit slipped right out of Suds arms and it shoved her into the hot tub of lye.

The Nixe knew just what to do. It pulled on the protective gloves, and stirred the pot. When Suds’ bones had dissolved, it made the broth into soap.

Then, the river spirit drew upon its glamour. It turned itself into a girl, very like Suds, but for the wet hem of its dress and the rumbling of its stomach. And it brought the bars of soap to the grateful mother and father.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Except, of course, the soap-makers.

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“Making Suds” was my submission for Round Two of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Location: a hot tub, Object: a pair of gloves. I placed third overall in my group. The judges feedback is below:

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1651}  This has all of the elements of a classic fairytale. We gets a strong sense of Suds and that she would rather play in the forest than make soaps.  {1597}  I really enjoyed the classic fairy tale structure you used, complete with negligent parents and children who just want to wander in the woods. The kind of Faustian deal with the Nixe was fun to read about. The ending is dark but satisfying.  {1739}  In the beginning, Suds seems to be clever and her deals are basically made in the hopes of her parents’ adoration. The anticipation built as we work toward the payoff is well paced.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1651}  If a creature told you that it was going to eat you, why would you lunge for it? Instinctually, it does not make sense. I also didn’t understand the ending; why did the soapmakers not live happily ever after? For all they know, they still have their two children and all the soaps they can sell.  {1597}  One flag that was raised for me is that since the parents are aware of the Nixe and warn her not to speak to it, they would probably be suspicious when she comes home with 50 perfect soaps on her first day. It seems strange they wouldn’t have suspected and put a stop to it. Also, I wasn’t sure I believed Suds would be reluctant to sacrifice her baby brother. I’m not sure if you need that last line.  {1739}  If the Nixe has the ability to ‘glamour’ why hasn’t it done this already and worked its way into a home? Why would a river sprite be able to live in disguise as a human? Suds doesn’t display any love for her brother. Why wouldn’t she agree to hand him over?

“The Hollow” by S.C. Jensen

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The lifeless eyes hung level with Ginny’s gaze. Blue nylon cord twisted around the thing’s naked body, diving in and out of the flesh like a hungry worm, so that she couldn’t see where it was tied. A mask of blood matted the fur on the tiny face and pooled in its ears. The rest of it was hairless. It looked a bit like a cat, but Ginny couldn’t see a tail.

Behind her, Bea made a sound in her throat almost like a laugh.

“I told you,” Ginny said. “I told you something like this would happen.”

The fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Bea blew out a cloud of steam in the crisp autumn air. It hung like a ghost between them. “This is bad, Gin.”

The sun sank into the trees behind their house. Rose-gold spears of evening light broke through the remaining leaves of the season and cast an otherworldly glow over the macabre scene.

Ginny reached out a tentative hand and recoiled quickly. The body was still warm. “I don’t what to do anymore, Bea.”

“Well, we can’t tell anyone.” Bea cupped her hands around her mouth and blew into them, trying to stay warm. “That’s for sure.”

“I didn’t do it,” Ginny said. She rubbed her fingers against her pants. A smear of blood stained the denim. “You believe me, don’t you?”

“They’re going to take you away, Ginny. You’re going to celebrate your sixteenth birthday in a straight-jacket.”

Silence fell between the girls until the air quivered with it. Ginny’s body shook with more than the cold; her heart hammered painfully against her chest. Spots swam at the edges of her vision, like ghost-lights. Will-o-the-wisps. An aura of light seemed to swell around her sister’s face. Ginny was afraid she would pass out if Bea didn’t say something soon.

“Go get the shovel.” Bea turned toward the tree. “I’ll cut it down. Mom’s going to be home soon.”

Ginny walked to the garden shed on legs like sandbags. She kicked each step forward, feeling the impossible weight of her body with every step. Bea was right. No one could know about this. They were just waiting for an excuse to lock her up. Voices rose, unbidden, to whisper in her ears. Maladjusted, delusional, unstable…

Her therapists and social workers said they were on her side, but she could hear the excitement in their voices when they talked to her mother. A very unusual case. Like her mental health was a sideshow they could observe from the front row, munching on popcorn and planning their next sabbatical project.

She heard the kids at school, too. Freak, psycho, bitch… Sure, she threatened to cut Bradley Schaeffer’s pecker off with a pair of sewing shears in home-ec. But Bradley had started to look at Bea the way he used to look at her. The way he looked at her before that night. Slut. Ginny wasn’t going to let that happen again. Not to Bea. Bradley would stay away from both of them from now on.

Ginny’s hand pressed against the weather beaten door of the shed. Her coat sleeve fell back to reveal a cross-hatch of raised silver flesh on her wrist. Ginny didn’t like to look at her wrists. Her limbs felt like they belonged to someone else, dull, heavy things she had to lug through life. The ghostly chains of her sins, hanging off of her, dragging her down. She pushed the door open with her hip and stepped into the frigid darkness inside. The shovel was there, just as she’d left it.

The thing was on the ground when Ginny came back. The frayed cord lay in a tangle at Bea’s feet, electric blue and unnaturally vivid against the dead flesh and dead leaves. Bea said, “Give me that.”

The girls trudged through the forest behind their house, single file. Bea held the shovel against her shoulder, like a rifle, and led the way to the Hollow. Ginny dragged the mess of meat and twine behind her. The creature deserved better, but she couldn’t stand to carry the body in her arms. The skinny limbs, red and wet and going cold. It was too much like—

“Here.” Bea stopped abruptly and stuck the blade of the shovel into a patch of churned up earth. “Put it next to the other one.”

Ginny released her grip on the nylon rope and took the spade from her sister. She pressed her foot into the top of the blade until she could feel the edge cutting into her foot through the sole of her shoe. She pressed until it hurt, but the blade wouldn’t pierce the frozen soil.

“Hurry up,” Bea said. “Mom’s going to be home any minute now.”

“I can’t.” Ginny threw all of her weight on top of the shovel. The handle dug into her ribs. “It’s rock hard.”

“Well put it in with the others.” Bea’s exasperated voice burst out in another cloud of steam. “You’re really cutting it close this time.”

Ginny eyed the fallen leaves at their feet. If you didn’t know to look for them, no one would ever know they were there. Little mounds arranged in a pyramid. The original on top and, supporting it—or maybe keeping it company—the tributes. Servants in the afterlife.

“The big one,” Bea said, suddenly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “It’s the freshest.”

Ginny’s heartbeat slowed. It struck with the great, anvil-clanging blows of a blacksmith. She forced her eyes to see the other grave. This one was easier to spot, even if you didn’t know to look for it. But after another good wind the raised earth would be completely camouflaged by the last of the leaves. With any luck, it would stay hidden until spring.

“Or do want Mom to find you like this?” Bea whispered. Something like glee tainted her voice. “She’d lose it. You two can be roomies in the nut house.”

Ginny pushed the shovel into the softened soil of the largest mound and flicked it aside. Something had gotten to the body, already, cold as it was. Black holes stared up at her from where the eyes should have been. Greying flesh sunk into the bones beneath the sockets. Teeth smiled up at her, liplessly. Ginny held her breath.

Like she was proving a point, Bea said, “There.”

Bradley Schaeffer’s face, what was left of it, glared up at Ginny accusingly. “I didn’t do it, Bea. I swear I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Bea’s voice dripped with scorn. “You never stand up for yourself, do you? That’s why I’m here.”

Ginny’s limbs began to weigh on her again. It wasn’t possible. Not this. “Bea?”

“Come on,” Bea said. “Tuck it in with him nice and tight.”

As if being moved by something outside herself, Ginny crouched next to the shallow grave. She tugged the mass of meat and twine through the leaves and, lifting it by the rope, lowered the thing onto Bradley’s chest. Bea was right. It suited him. She dropped the twine and the raw, naked body rolled. It caught in the crook of Bradley’s arm, like—

“Just like a baby,” Bea said.

Ginny’s legs began to cramp and she stood slowly. Without taking her eyes off the bodies, she dragged the shovel through the leaves and dirt she’d churned up. She pulled it over the pair like a blanket, gently. Tears stung her eyes and burned her cold cheeks.

“Good.” Bea’s voice cracked like a twig. “Now let’s go. The last thing we need is for mom to see you out here. They’ll put you away for sure, even if they don’t find this mess.”

“Stop saying that!”

“Come on, Gin. Wandering around the forest with a shovel, crying and talking to yourself. You look like a bloody lunatic,” Bea looked pointedly at the stains on Ginny’s clothes. “No pun intended.”

“I’m not crazy! You know I’m not. You’re just trying to upset me.”

“Upset you?” Bea’s mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. “That implies that you were settled in the first place. We both know you’re off your rocker.”

“Don’t you turn on me, too” Ginny whispered. “I need you.”

“I,” Bea said, “am not going anywhere. That’s your problem.”

“Tell them we were just out for a walk,” Ginny begged. “They’ll believe you.”

“Me?” Bea laughed, then. The harsh, joyless bark of sound shook the leaves off the trees. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

Bea’s face flickered in the waning twilight. Ginny had to concentrate to focus on her, like looking through murky water at a mirror. Bea had her dishevelled hair, her tear-streaked cheeks, her blood-stained clothes. They were identical, except for Bea’s cruel smile.

Then the cruel smile softened. Bea reached out and took Ginny’s hand, her damp fingers like ice, and led her back to the house. She said, not unkindly, “You really are crazy, you know.”

Ginny knew.
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This is my piece for the January prompt for 12 Short Stories. The prompt was “No one can know” at 1500 words. “The Hollow” came in just shy at 1498. I don’t technically submit this one until the 30th, so if you leave comments and feedback, I have time to apply it before the official due date! Please do. I am now awaiting my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, which will be arriving at midnight EST. I wanted to get this one out of the way so I can focus one NYC Midnight next week. Stay tuned for that one, too! As always, thanks for reading.

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Goodbye, Old Friend

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It has been 125 days. It seems like nothing. It seems like an eternity.

125 days ago I said goodbye to one of my oldest, dearest friends. One that has been with me for nearly every moment of celebration and triumph, every moment of chaos and despair, in my adult life–as inevitable as my shadow, with me so often that we became indistinguishable from one another.

Sometimes we come to rely on a friend more than we should. Sometimes friendship turns bitter and false, but it has been a part of our lives for so long that we refuse to see how twisted the relationship has become. Even once we recognize the toxicity of this “friend” it can still be hard to say goodbye. It is so easy to remember the good times, the warm glow of the early days. Maybe, if we just tried hard enough, we could forget the pain, the anxiety, the fear that has grown over the years, and embrace the love and warmth and happiness of the past.

But, of course we can’t. I couldn’t. So I said goodbye.

I haven’t had a drink in 125 days.

I hemmed and hawed over whether or not I would write about my sobriety here or not. It’s not exactly writing-related. And yet, I think there are a lot of us writers and creative folks who fall prey to alcohol and substance abuse. There is this idea that if we aren’t hurting we have nothing worthwhile to say. Sometimes we buy into that idea so much that we hurt ourselves, just to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Pain, the human condition. If life isn’t difficult enough, we make it so.

Since I quit drinking I have become acutely aware of the many ways I had internalized alcohol as some inexorable aspect of my “self,” as if the ubiquitous glass of wine in my hand was an extension of my very being. Even once I began to see the negative impact that alcohol was having on my physical and emotional health, the idea of not drinking was terrifying to me. I’ve attempted to cut back, or “take a break” from drinking in the past. But I could never come to terms with the idea of giving it up completely. For ever. That was like trying to imagine cutting off my own arm. Sure, I might survive the amputation, but would I ever feel whole again?

I can’t pinpoint for you what changed, exactly. But in August I had a moment where I knew, I just knew, that I was done. I made the choice, not only to quit drinking, but to actively pursue sobriety as a lifestyle. I think this is what has made the difference for me. In actuality, “not drinking” is the easy part. Having to relearn who you are, experience and process emotions without a chemical safety-net, develop healthy coping mechanisms to replace the unhealthy ones… that’s the tough shit.

Learning how to write sober has been one of the hardest parts of all. I had come to rely on a glass or two of wine to shush the internal editor and get the ball rolling. I trained myself to “need” alcohol in order to write. Untraining myself has been difficult. I haven’t been as prolific as I would have liked in the last few months. However, I have made a few encouraging discoveries.

  1. I can shut up the internal editor just by sheer force of habit. Ass in chair. Write. Write shit if you have to. But if you start writing, eventually the shit runs out and you’ll have something usable.
  2. I actually write better sober. Shocker, I know. But the old “write drunk, edit sober” adage (that may or may not be correctly attributed to Hemingway) is a crock of shit. As far as I can tell, the need to write drunk is really just a symptom of lazy work habits.
  3. Editing is a hell of a lot less painful when your drafts are coherent.
  4. All of the actual mechanics of writing craft are easier when you are using your whole brain: structure, plotting, connecting themes and imagery… you name it, it’s easier sober.
  5. I eat better and I sleep better when I don’t drink. I don’t have anxiety attacks anymore. I exercise regularly. All of this makes me more competent, not just in writing, but in everything I do.

I’m not writing any of this in order to convince anyone else that sobriety is the right choice for them. Your relationship with alcohol (or any substance) is your own. Only you can decide if you need to make a change. If, however, any of what I’ve said here speaks to you I’m happy to offer whatever advice and support that I can. Please comment!

For those who are considering sobriety, or are just curious to read about addiction and neuroplasticity, I highly recommend reading “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace and “The Biology of Desire” by Marc Lewis. The r/stopdrinking subreddit is a great source of information, advice, and support as well.

Thanks for reading!

Flash Fiction Friday: “Park Date” by S.C. Jensen

Late again! This is my July assignment for the 12 Short Stories competition. This month, the prompt was “Cats and Dogs” at 300 words exactly. I managed to tweak this one to 300 words on the nose, but I’m not sure if it meets the requirements for a flash fiction piece. Is there enough of a conflict? Enough of a resolution? What would you like to see me do differently? Let me know in the comments!

“Park Date” by S.C. Jensen
Word count: 300
Genre: Fiction

Amy peeled a leg off the metal park bench and crossed it over her knee. A film of sweat sprang up between her thighs to lubricate the transition. How disgustingly efficient, she thought.

“Why did I agree to this?”

The trees sighed above her with thick, humid breath. She pictured stamens spewing pollen and the eager ovaries waiting to receive it. Bursting and gaping, the lurid eroticism of trees. Her nose itched.

Amy inhaled deeply and wondered if all that sweat was making her stink. She watched the people strolling through the park or, some inhuman things, actually jogging. Blonde hair, no. Green shirt, no. Girlfriend, definitely no.

Oh.

Oh no.

Short brown hair, check. Black sleeveless shirt, check. Great, slobbering ball of fur? He hadn’t mentioned that. And yet, he was slowing his pace, glancing in her direction.

“Amy?”

She thought, I never should have come here.

“That’s me.” She stood, wanting nothing more than to give her thighs a little fresh air. “You must be Brian. Who’s this?”

The furball oozed affection. And drool. Amy took a step back.

“Oh, this is Duke,” the guy smiled. It was a nice enough smile. “Don’t you like dogs?”

“I’m more of a cat person.”

“Sorry,” Brian said. He seemed earnest. “He’s not mine. I just thought—”

“Great way to meet chicks, right?”

Brian’s dark skin flushed darker. “Something like that.”

“I’m allergic,” Amy said. “Trees, too.”

Brian said, “Well, this was a bust.”

“Sorry.” Amy turned. “This was a bad idea.”

“Wait!” Duke sat at Brian’s feet and scratched behind an ear. “Let’s try again. You choose, this time.”

Amy smiled in spite of herself. “Meet me at the library, five o’clock.”

Then she left the heat, and the trees, and the dog behind her and turned toward home.

 

“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

Here is one of the first short fiction pieces I ever attempted. I wrote this about a year ago and haven’t done anything with it, though I am still kind of interested in making this fit with my Cold Metal War world if I can. In an effort to show more of my work, though, I give it to you. Let me know what you think!

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Quiet now.

A dry wind pushes the reluctant prairie grasses in a frantic dance. Bending and swaying. Shushing and sighing. The hot breath of a mother soothing her exhausted child. Singing.

Everything else is quiet now.

My heart beats. Of course it beats. I’m still alive. My heart beats with the arrhythmic song of trees and insects. Of hot mother’s breath and colic.

I’m still alive.

The copse of poplars trembles around me, a shiver of leaves that runs up my spine and out the top of my head into the clear blue skies above. Boney white trunks shift and creak in the breeze. Sweat beads on my sunburnt forehead. A salty river runs from my temple, down my neck, and between my breasts. Pooling there.

I shift the weight on my shoulder. The thin nylon rope wasn’t designed for this. The skin beneath my shirt is raw and red where the makeshift rifle strap digs into my flesh. I can’t put it down.

Scan the horizon. My eyes are gritty and it is impossible to focus. Keep them open. I try to relax my mind. I don’t need detail. I will be able to sense if they are still following me; the things lack subtlety. I’ll be safe. I just need to keep a clear view of the horizon. The grid breaks through the sea of native grasses like an old grey scar. Nothing grows there. They don’t stray far from the gravel these days.

Vigilance is key. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in numbers. Besides, they don’t want to kill me. Not yet.

Though that’s much worse.

The little grove of trees around me is the last cover available until I get to the water tower. It crouches on the horizon, one spindly leg sagging. The white of its body heavy and swollen atop delicate limbs. Daddy Longlegs. An injured thing. Only the desperate seek the protection of the dying. I can make it. As soon as I know the road is clear, I’ll take my chance.

I close my eyes and fill my lungs with the dry, herbal scented air. Pasture sage and yarrow. Listening to the sounds of the prairie I am transported to an earlier time. A time before the fear and loneliness set in. Before friends became enemies and families tore themselves apart.

As a child, I wandered these fields with lunch in my knapsack and a peashooter on my back. Gophers didn’t stand a chance against my old Red Ryder. Dad had gotten me the pink one, proving once again that he was more interested in the idea of his daughter than his actual daughter. I loved it all the same. I wrapped electrical tape around the pastel coloured stock and took secret pleasure in the way dirt and grass stuck to it, how my hands never quite felt clean after an afternoon of hunting.

A twig breaks behind me, and I drop. My heart hammers in my chest. All I can hear is the roar of blood in my ears. I struggle to roll onto my side, tugging at the gun and hoping to hell they are as surprised as I am. Idiot! My family will kill me yet, even if it’s just the memory of them. Get yourself caught this close to the finish line. Sentimental idiot!

I get the butt of the rifle tight against my shoulder and I try to focus. A blur of movement to my left makes me flinch. The thing rushes at me and I shoot blindly, a crack in the air that knocks the leaves off the trees. The butt kicks back, biting my collarbone; my grip was off. Not a fucking peashooter. I know I missed. I curl against myself protectively, waiting for it to hit me. I flinch again as I feel the weight of the thing soaring over me. Its shadow darkens the splotchy red light behind my tightly closed eyes. It lands next to me. I brace myself.

But it doesn’t strike. It runs. I hear it crash through the shrubs at the edge of the poplar stand, and then almost silently into the grasses beyond. What the fuck?

I roll again, getting my knees under me. I glance warily over my shoulder, leery of the trees now. If they can hide me, they can hide other things. But there is nothing. I turn to the field, my heart thumping so hard I think I might pass out. Bile rises in my throat. Nothing.

No. Not nothing. Cresting the waves of late summer prairie grass is a beautiful sight. The arching back and graceful legs of a white-tailed doe flash above the grasses and disappear again. She bounds left and dekes right, and in a few long leaps is gone.

Relief floods over me. My breathing steadies. The stars dancing before my eyes begin to dissipate as my heartbeat slows. I’m still alive.

But I fired my rifle. I might as well have lit a flare and signaled my pursuers. It’s time to move. I swing the rifle onto my back again, wincing as the rope burns its way into place. The pain keeps me present. I can’t afford to wait. I push into the sagebrush and don’t look back.

Grasshoppers leap against me as I press through the grasses. The soft flickers as they hit my legs and chest go mostly unnoticed, but when they hit my neck and face I feel the sharp thwack of their bodies colliding with mine. Hard reminders that everything is the same. Everything except us. Mother Nature goes on her merry way as the parasites destroy themselves. I hope, vaguely, that in a hundred years there are scientists left to write about this.

Will they be Carriers, too? Most of us will be dead. Maybe all. Carriers and Hosts. We’re all doomed. The only hope is that there are enough of us left to rebuild someday.

Tall prairie grasses scratch my neck and cheeks. Native grassland. It comforts me to know there will be so much left when we’re gone. Not human but enough. Better that it’s not human. The parasites. Worms that eat the dead. Monsters.

Carriers.

They said we were the monsters. Not like we chose this path. One day we’re all brothers and sisters. The Human Fucking Race. Next we’re Carriers and Hosts. We’re disease ridden and diseased. We’re the living and the dead. Or soon to be.

But we didn’t choose to be this way. I watched my mother die in my arms, flesh marred by fowlpox—scales like an alligator across her skin. Flakey white scabs for eyes, a moulting snake between Egyptian cotton sheets; 400 thread count, a luxurious death bed. You think I wanted that?

Even before the milk had taken her eyes. Hardened to a crust. Before that, when she stared at me with cold hatred, as if I was the reason Marcus had died. As if I would kill my baby brother. As if I wanted any of this.

Daddy at least took pity on me.

He gave me the .30-06. He gave me my knapsack filled with food and hand-loaded rounds. He gave me a hard hug and pushed me into the night.

Don’t come back, sweetie.

And the grasshoppers hit my throat and my eyes. They get stuck in my hair. They remind me of those fleeting embraces. Those moments before I was just a Carrier. I love you, baby. Gimme a hug. Back when I was a woman. A daughter. A person, not a death sentence.

Suddenly I’m standing beneath the water tower. The old beast creaks and sways above me in the wind. I wonder if she’ll fall. All this way and the ancient wooden structure could just collapse and obliterate me. Put me out of my misery.

Quit feeling sorry for yourself, girl. I need to get higher before I set the signal. This is about more than just you. I circle the water tower, looking for a way up. There. On the broken leg. Of course. The ladder is as brittle looking as the limb it’s attached to. But I don’t have much choice. I need to be above the tree line for the fucking contraption to work.

If it works.

Stop it.

I grab the rung above my head and haul my weight onto the first step. The ladder is metal, rusty and corroded where the white paint blisters and peels away. It’s like their skin, pale and bumpy on the outside and sickly, infected red underneath. Don’t think about it. Just climb.

Hand over hand. Pull. Step. Hand over hand. Pull. Step. I give each bar a good yank before taking my foot off its current purchase. I don’t like the look of those rusty old welds, and I’m too close to my goal to die now. Half way up the tower my precaution pays off. A rung shifts beneath my hand and tears away with the gentlest of encouragement. I throw the thing down, elated and angry. See? You’re not so fucking dumb, are you? Might survive this yet.

I’m so focussed on the ladder that I don’t pay much attention to the platform above me. When I get there, finally, my heart pounding and my breath coming in winded gasps, I take a moment before hoisting myself to safety. For a dizzying moment I allow myself a look down.

Below me the grasses spin and swirl in the wind. From here, they look more like golden-green waves crashing against the shores of poplar stands and rock piles, farmers’ great monuments dedicated to cleared fields. Progress.

No one would be farming these fields again. The cattle and horses that once grazed here would be dead soon. Neglected. Starved. Maybe eaten. The crops would never be planted again. The only sign that we’d ever been here would be those rock piles, the tenacious alfalfa that would try to overtake the native grasses, and the grid roads cutting through the landscape like surgical scars.

No one is following. I’m going to make it after all. I reach up and grasp the handle of the railing. It passes the tug test and I throw my weight into the last big step up. The railing moves a bit under my weight, but it’s relatively solid. I put my foot down on the braided steel platform and look up.

“Shit!”

The shock almost sends me back through the rail opening. A foot from my face are the gaping twin mouths of a shotgun. I don’t try to get my rifle. I’m fucked. I know it. It’s an ambush. Instinctively I put my hands up. Even as I do it I wish I hadn’t. I wish I wasn’t giving them the satisfaction of my cooperation. How did they know to wait here?

“How did you know I was here?” A voice echoes my thought. I might be wrong, but I think there is a tremor there.

“I didn’t,” I say, thickly. These are the first words I’ve spoken aloud in weeks. I clear my throat. “Did you know I was coming?”

“Are you one of them?” she asks, ignoring my question. It’s a woman. A girl, maybe. I can’t focus past the double-barreled threat in my face. But her voice gives me hope. More women are Carriers than men. My odds just got a little better.

“One of who?” Whom. The mental correction is absurd. A relic of my past life. I almost laugh. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

“One of them. The sick ones. The god-damned Host,” she pushes the firearm closer to my face. Not funny. Not fucking funny.

“No.” I keep my eyes down. I can see the grass twisting and turning beneath me, through the gridwalk. “No. I’m clean.”

“Show me.” The shotgun lowers a few inches. I can see past it to her face. She’s scared, yes. She’s scared and she’s angry. She’s like me.

I move slowly, fully aware that she could punch a hole in my chest big enough to let the light in. What light? But I pull up the sleeves of my button-down canvas blouse, exposing my wrists. I undo the buttons at my neck to show her my chest. I start to take off my boots, army surplus infantry grade combats, to show my ankles. She stops me.

“Okay.” The gun lowers and I allow myself a deep breath. “Fuck. Okay. I’m sorry. It’s just—”

“I know,” I assure her. Then I do laugh. “Don’t I know? Jesus.”

“Do you have a beacon?”

I stop. The woman stares at me. Into me. Her dark eyes pierce my flesh, protruding from her sunken face like daggers. Desperate. Is this my face?

“Do you have a fucking beacon?” Her voice rises in agitation. “Answer me or I’ll fucking shoot you and check your fucking pockets.”

She swears like someone who doesn’t swear. It’s both endearing and terrifying. Desperate.

“I have one.”

“Thank god.” Her shoulders sag visibly. “Thank god. Thank god.”

“Do you?” I ask. “Why are you up here?”

The woman’s eyes flash again. Daggers. She turns her back on me and walks to the west side of the tower. I wait a moment, then follow. She crouches and I see what she’s hiding. A white-painted piece of plywood leans against the belly of the water tower. There is a mewling noise coming from inside the makeshift shelter. She drops to all fours and crawls inside, motioning me in behind her. I follow.

Inside the shelter, she picks up a bundle of rags. The mewling thing. And she shows me. It’s a baby. Newborn. Less than two months old. But there are already blisters on its face. The mouth is a raw, red wound. It cries like it has no energy for crying. The woman shushes it, her soft voice like wind in the grass. Its tiny voice like the whining of black flies and mosquitos.

“I had one,” she whispers. The sound melds into her noises of comfort. “I had one, but I lost it when we ran.”

“Why are you here?”

“I came anyway.” She smiles sadly. “That was before I knew he was one of them. I came and I hoped someone else would come.”

I turn my eyes to the horizon, again. Peering into the bright triangle of light beyond the shelter. Movement. There on the grid. They are coming.

“I have one,” I say.

“Okay.” She pulls the infant to her breast and the gaping red wound begins to suckle. “Okay. You can use it.”

“But we can’t take him.” I know it. She knows it. I don’t know why I say it.

“No.”

I take the thing out of my pocket. A small, metal disc. Easy to conceal. The man who gave it to me made me promise, promise to make it here. Promise to start the signal. I hold it in the palm of my hand, watching the movement on the road.

“You know what’s inside?” she asks. I look at her narrow face again, the taught skin and hard bones. “What you get when you push that button?”

“I know.”

“Can I have it?”

“You don’t need it,” I say. “You’re healthy. You’re going to be fine.”

“Maybe,” she smiles at the nursing boy. That tiny thing with so much life. He’s trying. But it’s not enough. “You know, they told me he would be okay. He would be okay because I was okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” The babe suckles half-heartedly and falls asleep at her breast. “But if you can, please let me have it. When you set the beacon. Please.”

“Will you wait? Will you wait to see if they come?” Different they. Good they. Savior they.

“No,” she says, still rocking her son. “It doesn’t matter if they come. I’ll give him enough and I’ll take the rest. I’ll be dead when they come for you.”

I look at my rifle, and at her shotgun. I can’t blame her for wanting to take the easy way out. What if they don’t come? But she can have them. I’m not going to go that easily, even if the beacon fails and the military can’t get to us here. I’ve done what I can.

“Okay,” I say. And I push the button. A tiny red light blinks at me from the surface of the beacon. It works. The centre lifts to reveal a single white pill. It’s meant for Carriers to take if they are discovered before help arrives. If the Host captures us. It is meant to save us from the torture of experimentation. I hope it works

I give her the little white pill, and I keep my eyes on the horizon. She puts the drug in her mouth without hesitating, and chews. With her index finger, she swipes a paste from the tip of her tongue and puts her finger in the baby’s mouth. He sucks, and shivers, and is still.

“Thank you,” she says, relaxing finally. Her eyes look glassy in the half-light of the shelter. “Thank you.”

I’m not going without a fight. I pull the woman’s shotgun closer to me with my foot. I check the chamber and see two dull, brassy eyes peering back. No other shells are in sight. But I have a pocket full of cartridges and plenty of time. I’m still a good shot. I feel the woman’s body relax beside me. A thick ammonia scent hangs in the air as the pill takes effect. I have nothing but time. I’m still alive.

 

 

 

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 3

23222902_2135986889961848_997101601_oIn an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory! This is Part 3 of my progress.

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

Click here for Part 1: Chapters 1-3

Click here for Part 2: Chapters 4-8

Chapter Nine

“Well,” Frank said. He stood before the boarded up entrance of the tunnel and scratched his head. “I guess we can’t argue with our own eyes.”

Margaret thought that was rich after he’d spent forty-five minutes arguing with Margaret and Robert about what they’d seen with their eyes. The entrance to the mine wasn’t visible from their campsite. Frank had been convinced that his map was right and Margaret and Robert were having some kind of joint hallucination. Brian was convinced they were trying to play a joke on the rest of the group. It was Ellie who said, “Let’s go check it out, then.”

The trip through the forest toward the bottom of the cliff went pretty well. Margaret felt the oppressiveness of the trees around them, like an endless pressure. But in reality, the trees grew with quite a bit of distance between them and the underbrush was minimal. The dry crunch of pine needles below their feet was the only sound as the group hiked on in silence.

The silence itself was unsettling. Not that Margaret wanted to listen to a bunch of know-it-all chatter from the Swains. But without their voices to distract her, Margaret became very aware of the actual silence. The forest was too quiet. There were no birds. No leaves rustling. Just the dead crunch of pine needles under their feet. It was unnatural.

That feeling didn’t go away once they stood in front of the mine entrance. The Swains didn’t seem to notice. But Ellie and Mom shifted from foot to foot and scanned the trees the same way Margaret was. Robert stood stiffly next to her.

“Fascinating!” Gerald walked around the entrance to the mine, kicking at ancient debris with his toes. “Even if this isn’t Drake Mine, it definitely looks like someone was mining here. What is it they were looking for around here?”

“Copper, mostly,” Frank answered. “But Drake Mine is the only one legally registered in the area. It’s possible this is an offshoot passage from one of the main drilling chambers, though. Like and emergency exit.”

“When do we go in?” Brian’s eyes glinted with excitement.

“Shouldn’t we check up lake to see if there’s another main entrance?” Margaret asked. She wasn’t keen on the idea of them exploring the mine at all. Further exploration would at least delay the inevitable. Maybe they’d get weathered out before anyone went underground. She didn’t know why, but the idea of anyone going inside the abandoned mine bothered her worse than any of it. It just felt wrong, like an intrusion.

Hell, even Charles Thomas hadn’t wanted to go near the mine.

“Well it’s definitely Drake,” Frank said. He picked up picked up an old, gray board stamped with black letters: DRAKE. “One shaft is much like the others. We could go in here.”

“Unless you wanted to check for bones,” Brian joked. “With tooth marks.”

Mom’s eyes focussed on the boarded up entrance, drawn to the darkness beyond. “Bill Williams said they burned the bodies,”

“’Bill Williams’ said whatever he thought he could say to get a rise out of you girls,” Brian said, carefully including Robert in his pointed gaze.

“Well I, for one, would love to go check it out.” Gerald proudly slapped Frank on the back. “Let’s have a look at the old profession, shall we?”

“We can discuss our options back at camp,” Frank said. “I’m starving.”

“Just as long as I’m not on the menu, bro.”

“Not yet,” Robert said. “But I suppose if we were desperate enough…”

“Don’t get his hopes up, Bobby,” Ellie said. “Things will have to be more than desperate before anyone eats Brian.”

“Fuck off,” Brian said.

But they followed Frank’s advice and ended up back at the camp. Frank was full of enthusiasm for the next few days’ exploration.

“We’ll go into the first shaft initially. If this is the main Drake shaft we’ll have lots to explore,” he said. “If not, we’ll get in a little ways and reassess.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Margaret said.

“It is easy,” Frank said. “Why wouldn’t it be?“

“You’re a few decades off the rescue mission,” Ellie said. “For one thing.”

“Look, Drake Mine is nothing to be afraid of,” Frank said. “Yes, there is some awful history. But as Dad can tell you, history doesn’t make the place.”

“It’s true,” Gerald said. “There are lots of places in Canadian history with horrific pasts.”

“And, what,” Ellie asled. “We just forget about it now? I’m sure that’s exactly what our ancestors wanted.”

“Your ancestors sold the land to government officials,” Frank said. “They knew full well what they were doing.”

“Have fun down there, then,” Robert said. “But I’m not going in and I’m not supporting this foolishness.”

‘Surprise, surprise,” Brian said. “Bobby Is afraid.”

“Bobby’s not a fucking moron,” Ellie snapped.

“Ellie, please.” Mom’ had her warning voice on again.

“Look, you guys do what you want tomorrow,” Margaret said in an attempt to keep the peace. “I’d like to see if we can find the main shaft further up the lake. Anyone want to come?”

“You can’t make it all the way up there and back in a day,” Frank said. But he sounded somewhat appeased by Margaret’s admitting his map might still be right.

“Unloaded, with three paddlers, we should be able to do eight kilometers an hour,” Margaret said. “As long as the weather holds. It’s only 25 kilometres to the mine. We’ll be able to check it out and be back before supper.”

Brian scoffed as if he didn’t believe it. Margaret thought if she paddled like Brian did she wouldn’t believe it either. But she knew they could make it easily, as long as the winds stayed like they had this morning. And so far the sky was clear, with no hint of the winds that had tormented them the night before.

“I’m game,” Robert said.

“You okay with that, Mom?” Ellie asked.

“Sure,” Mom replied. “I’ll hold down the fort here. These fools still need someone to make lunch, I guess.”

“Come on, Grace,” Frank said disapprovingly. “You know I want you to come with us.”

“Really, dear,” Mom said. “I’d rather not. I thought I might when we talked about it in town, but after seeing the thing I really have no interest in going in there. I’ll take lunch duty.”

“It’s settled then,” Gerald said. “Now when’s this food going to be ready? I’ll make us some drinks.”

Gerald seemed to come with an endless supply of whisky wherever he went. The man never appeared to be drunk, but he also never stopped drinking, so who knew. He rustled off into his tent to find whatever he needed to play bartender.

“You guys really don’t want to explore the mine?” Brian asked. He seemed genuinely baffled. “I’ve got my med kit and we brought climbing gear. It’s totally safe. Grace?”

“Who’s going to make your grilled cheese sandwiches if I get stuck under a rock?”

“Alright folks, drinks up.” Gerald came out of his tent shaking a novelty rugged-style martini shaker with a stack of stainless steel cups in his left hand. “Tomorrow is a big day.”

Robert laughed. As much as he hated the Swains, Robert had a soft spot for Gerald’s old lush persona. He stared into the cup Gerald offered him. “What the hell is this? A cherry?”

“You can’t have a proper Manhattan without a cherry,” Gerald winked. “Of course, to be a proper Manhattan I’d have to stir them. But I’m a practical man.”

“Says the man who brought vermouth and bitters on a canoe expedition,” Mom laughed.

Margaret sipped her cocktail and bit into the bright red marichino cherry. “How civilized,” she said.

 

 

Chapter Ten

Maybe it was the Manhattans—she’d had four—but Maragaret slept better that night. It helped that Brian stayed in his own tent and didn’t bother with the screaming and the shaking. But overall, Margaret felt better, better about everything.

The Swains would do their urban explorer thing; Brian would probably videotape the whole thing and have it uploaded on some website within moments of getting back to a wifi signal. Mom was going to stay back and tend camp. And Ellie, Robert, and she could escape, even if it was just for an afternoon.

She felt good.

When Robert stumbled into the tent a few hours afterward, she rolled over and pressed her ass against his crotch. Robert grunted appreciatively, slid a hand into her fleece pyjama pants, and slipped them down around her hips. Ellie snored on the other side of the tent.

Maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad.

Even Margaret could admit that her reservations about coming to Drake Mine had never been based on anything concrete. For some reason, when Frank brought the idea up a few weeks ago, Margaret reacted with the same gut-wrenching refusal that she felt for anything Frank suggested. No, no, no, hell no. Maybe that was all it was.

At the time it had felt like more. It had felt like fear. But she had no reason to be afraid. She’d heard the history—they learned it in sixth grade Social Studies—but it had never really resonated with her. When they were growing up, Margaret and Ellie spent most of their free hours in the bush. Her sister gave her a hard time for taking local myths too seriously, but Margaret knew some of the stories held more weight than others.

Her concerns about Drake Mine were more practical than residual school-girl nerves about spirits. She was worried that Frank would get hurt. Or worse. And that, for all that she hated the man sometimes, her mother would be alone again.

Frank wasn’t so bad, when she really thought about it.

A few hours after Robert had finished, Margaret woke again. She shifted out of the cold, wet spot she lay in and pulled up her pyjamas. The night was quiet. The only sound was the wind sighing through the trees, obviously much more content with their presence than the first night.

Brian probably had too much to drink and passed out before he could continue the prank. Good, Margaret thought, because if he tried it tonight Ellie probably would beat him with the paddle. Then they’d have to hide the body. Margaret giggled to herself.

It was strange, she thought as she drifted off again, how much the trees sounded like whispers. Like voices chattering around the tent. She wasn’t supposed to acknowledge any ‘superstitious nonsense’ when they were out in the wild, Ellie and she both knew how easily fear could take hold and make you think the strangest things were true. But tonight, Margaret didn’t feel afraid. She listened to the trees whispering to one another and wondered, vaguely, if they were talking about them. The motley crew that had turned up to explore this mine that shouldn’t even be here.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

They got an early start in the morning. Margaret wanted to take advantage of the same calm they’d had yesterday morning. She wanted to make it up to the mine and back in record time, just to drive home the point to Frank about what shitty paddlers he and his brother were. She wasn’t sure why, but she’d woken up feeling antagonistic again.

Luckily, neither Ellie nor Robert seemed very enthusiastic about lingering at breakfast. They both powered through their coffees, mostly ignored the Swain’s explorer talk, packed some snacks, and were ready to go.

“You sure you don’t want to come, Mom?” Ellie asked as they loaded up the canoe with their day packs and water bottles. “We could squeeze you in here.”

“Thanks, Ellie,” Mom said. “I know. But my knees aren’t too thrilled with the idea of more paddling. I’m looking forward to a day by the campfire with my book, actually. I’m not as young as I once was.”

“But you’re as young now as you’ll ever be,” Robert chimed in.

“What did I tell you about country music?” Ellie tossed a paddle at him. “You want to go swimming today?”

“I’ll make the curried chicken for supper tonight,” Mom said. “I’m sure you’ll all have an appetite.”

“Sounds good, Ms. Churchill,” Robert climbed into the canoe. “Don’t let those silly Swains lure you into the underground.”

“Not much chance of that,” Mom said. “I don’t fancy myself a canary, thank you.”

“See you soon, Mom.” Margaret said from the bow. “Love you.”

“Love you too, girls,” Mom said. “And you, Bobby. Have fun out there!”

###

That morning on the lake was a totally different experience from the morning before. The early morning mists still curled around the trees on the shore, and the gentle breaths of wind still stirred them across the lake. But the day felt much less ominous that yesterday, Margaret thought.

It seemed everyone was on the same page about showing up the Swains paddling skills, because Robert and Ellie drove them forward with record speeds. So much that Margaret struggled to keep up with their pace and find her place in the rhythm of the strokes.

The fat white canoe cut through the water like a schooner, skimming across the top of the lake as if they were weightless. Margaret revelled in the feeling of real paddling. This was what she missed. This is what she longed for when she was out in the bush.

Margaret watched the water break and spray off the front of the canoe. The two waves the slid next to the hull churned up the water right where she dug her paddle in. In that moment she felt one with Reyer Lake, like their presence had a purpose beyond fulfilling some macho dream of Frank Swains.

“Do you think we’ll find anything at the end of the lake?” Ellie wondered, slightly breathless from the rigorous pace. “What are the chances that there are two entrances to the same mine?”

“Pretty good, actually,” Robert said. “I didn’t want to say anything to the all-knowing Swains. But my Gramps mentioned lots of little ins and outs in the area. Some of these old mines are huge, it would be ridiculous to only have one entrance or exit.”

“So why did the Swine have such a hard time wrapping his head around the idea?”

“Well, first of all, because I am the one who told him,” Margaret said. “And I’m known to be ‘unreliable’ and ‘skittish.’”

“Mostly that,” Robert said. “Plus, for all Frank wants to be the expert, the mining industry today is very different from back in Gramps’ day. Those were the Wild West years. Wild north, I guess.”

“Bascically Frank is a prejudiced old wannabe,” Ellie said. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll buy that.”

They kept paddling without talking for most of the morning, just enjoying the calm waters and the warmth of the sunshine. As the heat of the day burned off the fog, the trees looked quite beautiful to Margaret. The evergreens were brilliant in their various shades of blue and green. And the few deciduous trees that retained their leaves after the first frost offered a shot of yellow and orange to brighten up the landscape that matched the neon-coloured lichen that seemed to cover every rock that inched toward the water.

Margaret didn’t know what it was, but there was something that was just right about the north. It had that fresh, unlived-in feel that she had never experienced anywhere else—not that she’d been so many places. But Margaret had a feeling that if all the people on earth just evaporated someday, that in a few years the planet would look a lot more like this—like the north and its trees and its lichen and the cool breeze that braced itself across the lake. The cool breeze that had a hint of winter in its breath.

“It’s getting cold,” Ellie said.

“Yeah,” Margaret replied. “Definitely turning over to winter at this point. I hope we don’t see any snow in the next couple of days.”

“Maybe being able to explore a little closer to the mainland will get us off Reyer more quickly,” Robert said from the back of the boat. “I wouldn’t be sad if we hit the road before temperatures drop below zero.”

“End of the line up there,” Margaret said. “You see anything that screams ‘mineshaft’ up ahead?”

“Hard to say,” Ellie said. “Let’s get out and walk around anyway. My knees are getting stiff.”

They pulled up to the far shore just after noon, dragged the canoe out of the water, and Margaret unpacked some of the sandwiches she’d made that morning. Neither she nor Ellie mentioned it when Robert tied the canoe to a thick tree and double checked the knot despite the fact that the air was dead calm. Not a ripple touched the surface of the lake right now. This was one of those things they agreed not to talk about.

Margaret had a closer look at the map and scanned the rocky hillside that crept up away from the waters of Reyer. The mine looked to be just up from the little inlet to her left, not quite as far up as the one near their campsite was. From their picnic spot, she couldn’t see anything like the great gaping hole she was expecting to see. The gray rocks just piled up behind her, sparse trees jutted up between them at random intervals, giving the landscape a somewhat bare and desolate look.

When they had finished their sandwiches, Margaret, Ellie, and Robert began to pick their way up the hillside toward where the minesite should be. While they didn’t see anything promising right off the bat, Margaret did notice some bits of rusted metal here and there between the stones at her feet that hinted they must be in the right area.

After they had climbed a good ways up the hill, Robert stopped and put his hand up to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. In the bright afternoon light, the gray of the rocks became a pale wall that obscured their path and made Margaret’s eyes ache.

“What’s that?” Robert said. “Looks like some old boards behind that little patch of spruce trees.”

He was right. There behind the trees was a pile of boards as gray and bleached as the stones around it. They were placed haphazardly across a narrow hole in the cliff face. Thin rusty streaks bled into the wood grain from where the boards had been nailed to one another decades ago. The nails themselves had rotted through, and left the boards dangling like a makeshift door, rather than a barrier.

“It looks so old,” Ellie said.

Margaret felt a chill creep up her spine. It did look old. And it should. Drake Mine was deactivated and abandoned almost eighty years ago. It was a wonder there was anything left of the mine site at all with the kind of harsh weather Reyer Lake must see every spring and winter. This was definitely the entrance to Drake Mine.

And it looked much older than the entrance near their campsite.

Robert approached the shaft and pulled a Maglite out of his jacket. He shone the beam of the flashlight into the darkness beyond the boards, but stayed well back from the entrance. Margaret was relieved at that. She didn’t like the ideas of the network of tunnels beneath their feet. She imagined it like an ant farm that might collapse under them at any moment. The entrance seemed particularly vulnerable to falling into itself.

“Goes pretty much straight down, I think,” Robert said. “I can’t see anything past the first couple of metres.”

“Well we don’t really need to check it out that closely,” Margaret said. “We just wanted to see if it was here, right?”

Robert stepped away from the shaft gratefully. He looked around the area. “See that clearing over there?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie said. “The flat spot?”

“I think that’s where the lodgings were,” Robert said. “Gramps said there was a long house of some kind that the miners slept in when they weren’t working.”

“You can see part of the old foundation on the left,” Margaret said. Ancient logs had been secured to the rocks with long iron spikes. Most of the logs had rotted away, but there was a hint of them along the hillside, bits of disintegrated wood and rusty leeching on the rocks.

“I didn’t notice anything like this around the campsite,” Ellie said.

“I guess they didn’t stay there overnight,” Robert said. “Maybe it was just an emergency exit?”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Margaret said. There was something about seeing the original Drake Mine site that had her thinking. “Did you look inside the other shaft? Back at camp?”

“Naw, I let old Frank do the inspecting.”

“I’ll be curious what the find in that one,” Margaret said.

Ellie raised an eyebrow at her. “Not curious enough to go check it out yourself, I suppose.”

“Hell no,” Margaret laughed. “But I think that’s a newer site. I wonder if someone has been digging illegally up there.”

“Maybe that’s why Frank actually brought us up here?”

“There gold in them thar hills!” Robert shouted and ran back down the path toward the shore. Ellie laughed and followed him.

Margaret scanned the mine site one more time, committing it to memory. There was something here that she needed to remember. She just couldn’t think of what.

Eventually she, too, climbed down the rocks. Margaret didn’t like the feeling of having Drake Mine at her back. Her ankle was still sore from where she’d twisted it the day before, so she didn’t run. But she hopped as quickly as she could down the hillside, following Robert and Ellie’s laughter like a beacon.

Robert already had the canoe in the water when she got to the bottom. Ellie tossed their bags into the boat and stood waiting for Margaret to get there.

“After you, sister dearest!”

“You don’t want to take the bow this time, Ellie?”

Ellie looked horrified. “Then I’d actually have to paddle!”

Margaret rolled her eyes and hopped into the canoe. Ellie followed her, settling on the middle of the boat. Robert pushed them out onto the open water and they were on their way.

The winds seemed to favour them on their way back to camp. Still barely more than a gentle breeze most of the time, but is guided them ever so insistently back down the lake so that each stoke of the paddle seemed to do the work of two.

“I can’t wait for your mom’s chicken curry,” Robert said. “What did we ever do without dehydrators?”

“Your ancestors are ashamed, Robert.”

“What?”

But when they pulled up to camp, Mom wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else. The breakfast dishes were stacked but not washed, next to the campfire. The campfire itself was cold.

“Maybe she went up to supervise after all?”

“I’m starving,” Ellie said. “Can we eat and then socialize? Please?”

“You get the fire going and I can be convinced of anything. My hands are freezing.”

“The wind is picking up again,” Robert said. “Good thing we left when we did or we might have sailed right past and landed on Bill Williams’ doorstep.”

“I’d prefer his company to the Swine brothers,” Ellie said, bitterly.

The rehydrated a shrink wrapped package of chicken meat and sauce and some instant rice. Margaret put on some extra water for tea. “What the hell is taking them so long?”

“Cover the pot,” Ellie said. “We should go check on them before it gets dark.”

“Ugh. Fine. I guess we can reheat the tea, too.”

They made their way up the hill toward the mine entrance. As the approached the hole in the cliff, twilight was falling around them. The wooden boards that had been blocking up the entrance were pulled aside and stacked neatly on the ground, making the door look like a great yawning mouth in the rock. It was pitch black inside. There was no sign of Mom or the Swains.

Margaret felt her anxiety kicking in again. “Robert, shine that light in there. Where the hell are they?”

“Hello?” Ellie called into the pitch while Robert fumbled for his Maglite. “Supper is ready!”

Her own voice echoed back at the group, but no one replied. Finally Robert got his flashlight out and shone the beam into the hole. A small room was illuminated in the yellow light of his flashlight. But there didn’t seem to be any tunnel leading further into the cliff. No shaft plunging underground. Just a small room, with a silver pot, a cook stove, and a sleeping bag.

“What the fuck?”

“Are the other canoes still here?” Ellie asked. “Are they fucking with us again?”

“I’m going to be so pissed if Mom is in on this too,” Margaret said. “This is beyond childish.”

“I’m going to drink my damned tea and go to bed,” Ellie said. “Those jerks can freeze out here playing their games for all I care.”

Margaret knew she wasn’t allowed to say anything without breaking her pact with Ellie. But she couldn’t help but wonder who had been sleeping in the hole. And how long it had been since they were at home.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

They finished their tea and washed up the supper dishes as the sun settled in behind the trees. Long shadows stretched down the hill toward them, black fingers that seemed to be reaching past them to touch the icy black waters of Reyer Lake. The loons were at it again, ululating laugher swelling and bouncing off the trees and rocks so that it was impossible to tell what was real and what was an echo. Margaret felt as if she were slowly going insane with the loons’ mad laughter.

But there were no other noises in the forest around them. No human laugher signalling a joke gone too far. The red canoes were where they had left them after the rescue mission the other day. Margaret knew they had to be here somewhere. She wondered if Brian would have planned this prank far enough in advance to have packed an extra tent for them to sleep in. But that seemed extreme.

It was going to be cold that night. She hoped against hope that there was a mineshaft they had missed behind the door in the cliff. Some other place that Mom and the Swains could be that would make sense. At and least underground they would be a little bit warmer. They could even make a fire.

Or maybe Bill Williams had swung by in a motor boat and taken them back to Moose Lips Lodge for drinks and conversation. That would be okay, too.

Either way, why hadn’t Mom left a note?

“Let’s get some sleep,” Robert said. The light from the campfire flickered over his face, casting an orange glow on against his umber complexion. The shadows under his eyes had deepened significantly over the course of the day. “We’ll find where they’re hiding in the morning.”

“This game is ridiculous,” Ellie said. “What could they possibly have to gain by trying to scare us?”

“Who knows,” Margaret said. “Not like Brian has ever needed a reason to torment us. It was his favourite thing to do, growing up.”

“This is extreme,” Ellie said. “Even for him.”

Robert spread the coals out so they would cool off more quickly. They stayed just long enough to be sure no other branches were going to flare up. Then Robert said,” Come on. Time for bed.”

The campsite was eerily quiet without the shuffling noises from the neighbouring tents. Margaret would have given anything to hear her mother setting in next to Frank, the hushed sound of their voices as he educated her about some insignificant detail. Her polite listening noises as she snuggled into her bag and enjoyed the company of a man who didn’t beat her and scream abuses and threaten her children. Even if he was an asshole, Frank wasn’t that bad.

Brian wasn’t either. This was utterly bizarre behaviour from both of them. And why would Mom and Gerald go along with it? There was no other explanation, though. Unless they’d find another way into the mine and couldn’t get back out again. The thought gave Margaret chills.

“I hope they aren’t trapped somewhere,” Ellie said, as she wrapped herself in her own blanked, echoing Margaret’s feelings. “It’s going to be cold tonight.”

“Try to sleep,” Robert said. “Both of you. We’ll look tomorrow. They’ll be alright for one night.”

“Until we find them,” Ellie said. “And I kill them.”

“That’s the spirit,” Robert said.

Then they were quiet. Margaret listened to the sound of Robert and Ellie breathing. She tried her time her own breaths to land seamlessly between theirs, creating a soft rhythm of exhalations. It was a calming trick she had developed as a child and she and Ellie were often curled together in her bed, under the blanket, waiting for the yelling to stop. Eventually, she always managed to sleep.

And it worked this night, too. So softly that she didn’t realize it was happening, sleep crept up and claimed Margaret. At least, she thought it had. Her body felt leaden and her thoughts were fuzzy, like she was thinking through cotton balls. No. That didn’t make any sense. But she hovered there on the edge of sleep, not quite in this world and not quiet dreaming. She was warm between the bodies of Ellie and Robert. Comfortable.

Then she heard the footsteps.

Margaret tried to sit up, but felt like there was something sitting on her chest, pinning her to the air mattress. She couldn’t move. Her eyes roamed around, trying to catch some shadow or some flash of movement from outside. But it was too dark. She could see nothing. All she could hear was the breathing of Ellie and Robert, and the shuffling footsteps outside their tent.

Panic gripped Margaret. Why couldn’t she move? Was that Brian outside again? Was he going to start shaking the tent?

Ragged breathing from outside joined the chorus that Margaret had tried so hard to create. Ragged breath and shuffling steps, coming closer. Margaret’s heart hammered so hard in her chest, she thought it would wake the others.

But they didn’t wake. They didn’t seem to hear anything going on outside.

Sleep paralysis, Margarget thought. Maybe she was dreaming. She had heard of people suffering from sleep paralysis, a strange dream state where you think you are awake but you can’t move. The stuff of nightmares.

Ellie shot upright suddenly, eyes wide. She heard it, too, Margaret thought. It didn’t relieve her. Ellie said, “Where are the dogs?”

“What dogs?” Robert asked sleepily. Then Margaret could move again. She could hear nothing from outside the tent.

“The dogs are gone,” Ellie said.

“I don’t like them either,” Robert said. “But don’t call them names until we’re sure they aren’t lost somewhere.”

“Hmm,” Ellie grunted, and fell back down to sleep. She rolled over and instantly started snoring. Robert fell back asleep quickly, too. Margaret’s heart slowly went back to normal as she listened to the wind in the trees outside. There were no more footsteps. No more ragged breathing.

I must have been dreaming, Margaret thought. She pressed herself into Robert, felt his chest rise and fall against her back, and closed her eyes.

The trees sighed around them, but Margaret didn’t hear any voices, this time. She wondered, just before she fell asleep, if perhaps she was losing her mind.

 

Chapter Thirteen

“I had the strangest dreams last night,” Ellie said when they sat around the campfire the next morning. It was early, yet. The sun was just starting to peak out from between the trees with a soft pink glow. Their breath smoked around their faces as they sipped their coffee. There had been a frost that night.

“About dogs,” Margaret said. Ellie looked at her strangely. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“Yes,” Ellie said. She stared at the flames. “I had forgotten that part.”

“Who’s up for oatmeal?” Robert asked, stirring a steaming pot of thick gray gruel in a stainless steel pot. “Breakfast of champions.”

“Yeah, dish me up,” Margaret said. “I’m just going to go make some room.”

“Classy,” Ellie said and tossed her the toiletries bag.

“Your coffee is a little too good at its job,” Margaret said. “I shouldn’t have had the third cup.”

“Three cups?” Robert laughed. “You’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle.”

“Thanks for the moral support.”

Margaret stretched and made her way into the woods behind their campsite. They’d been using a spot not too far from the edge of the exposed rocks. No one wanted to admit it, but going too far into the pines, even if it was for the purpose of privacy, wasn’t going to happen. There were some things that just didn’t rate too high on the priority list when you were out in the bush and things started getting strange.

Margaret crouched behind a fallen tree and put a hand on one of the outstretched branches for balance. The bark had fallen away in large chunks, revealing smooth, yellowing worm-eaten wood beneath. Spots that had been exposed longer than others were gray. The shadowed side was thick with early winter frost, but the morning sun was quickly burning off the crystals and leaving droplets behind. Except…

“Guys!” she shouted, pulling up her pants and spinning around to search the trees behind her. “Come quick!”

“I really don’t need to see it,” Ellie called back.

But Robert heard the urgency in her voice. “What is it?”

Margaret stared at the log she had been holding on to. Her handprint was just starting to fade as the sun burned up the layer of frost on the dark side. And beside it, there was another print. Longer, thinner fingers had wrapped over the log in the moments before she had come back here. Margaret scanned the ground around her.

“There are footprints in the frost,” she said. Robert stood by the tents searching the ground, but the sun had already kissed away the evidence. “There was a handprint on the log next to mine.”

Her heart sank as she looked at the log. It was covered in dew now, the imprint had dissolved back into the smooth bark as if it had never been there. Maybe it never had.

“Are you sure?” Robert said. “Maybe they were your own prints.”

“No.” Margaret shook her head emphatically and kept her eye on the trees. Someone was definitely out there. “They couldn’t have been mine. The handprint was too big, and It was pointed the wrong way. And the footprints…”

“Are nowhere to be found” Ellie said. Her eyes tightened at the corners. Margaret knew she was breaching their contract by speaking of this. But this wasn’t just her imagination. She had seen the prints. “They were probably yours, Maggie.”

But she had to say something. If she didn’t tell someone she was going to go insane thinking about it. Wondering. No. It hadn’t been her imagination. “Whoever made them was barefoot,” Margaret said.

###

After they had finished breakfast, Robert packed day bags for each of them. Ellie cleaned up the coffee and oatmeal dishes. Margaret just stared into the fire. Nobody spoke. She knew it sounded crazy. She knew she had a history of thinking and saying crazy things. But Ellie and Robert had always been the ones who believed her, no matter what.

Now they just seemed angry. Silently refusing to acknowledge what she had told them. Angry that she had said words like that out lout and allowed the fear to creep into them as well.

That was what the pact was all about. When you’re out in the wild, sometimes you get scared. Sometimes you think you see things and hear things. In the city, you can talk about it and laugh it off and reassure one another that there is nothing the matter. Out here, in the bush, it didn’t work like that.

Fear was contagious out here. The forest plays tricks on you. It tries to get you to believe your own fears, believe in the things your imagination twists out of rocks and shadows and long, finger-like branches. And when you spoke about the out loud, out here, they didn’t go away. Speaking about them made them real. Not just for yourself. It became real for everyone else, too.

She shouldn’t have broken the pact. Now Ellie and Robert had that sinking feeling in their stomachs as well. That feeling like they were at the top of the rollercoaster, just hovering on the edge of the drop. But there was no giggling carnie at the end of this ride, no safe delivery home. There was just the plunge into darkness, into the wild, where it was just going to get worse and worse.

Margaret knew. This was how it always started. And how, before she and Ellie had come up with the pact, she and her sister had almost ended up killing one another trying to fight of some imaginary enemy that had grown so real in their minds that they didn’t even believe in themselves anymore.

This wasn’t the first time Margaret and Ellie had been trapped in the north.

When the RCMP officers found the girls, fourteen and twelve years old, half-starved and more than a little crazed, they had scared one another so badly with imagined noises and shadows that they were ready to turn on one another.

They boy who had been with them, Cameron Charles, hadn’t fared so well.

They refused to speak, for weeks, after the police had found them and brought them back to La Crosse. They didn’t know what had happened to Cameron. They had lost track of everything except this mad idea that they needed to watch the other one.

When Cameron’s body was found, miles from their campsite, it appeared he had been running, and tripped. He fell down a steep, rocky embankment, and hit his head. It was hard to tell, since wild animals had been after him. But the police never suspected foul play.  Neither of the girls was ever charged with anything.

Margaret and Ellie came up with the pact, then. When your mind starts playing tricks on you out in the woods, you keep it to yourself. Act normal, and everything will be normal. Act afraid, and you will find things to be afraid of. Or they will find you.

Margaret only hoped that it wasn’t too late to keep her superstitious nonsense to herself.

###

“Ready to explore?” Robert asked. His tight smile suggested that he wasn’t feeling his usual relaxed, carefree self. “I’ll be you my peanut butter granola bar we find them before lunch, laughing it up just inside the mineshaft.”

“There was no inside to that mineshaft,” Ellie said. “It was just a room.”

One room. With stuff for one person. On person who could be living there, just up the hill from their campsite, untying canoes and creeping around their tent at night—

“That was yesterday. Today is today,” Robert said. “They probably hid the entrance. That’s what I would do.”

“You would never do something like this,” Margaret said.

Robert didn’t answer.

“I’ll go in,” Margaret said, suddenly. As if she could take back her words by doing something she really didn’t want to do. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Drake Mine. “I should be the one to go in first.”

“We’ll go in together,” Robert said, sensibly.

But she didn’t want him to, she found. Normally, Margaret loved Robert’s quiet chivalry. The way he supported her without even needing to be celebrated or acknowledged for it. He did it as naturally as he breathed. But she didn’t want him to. Not now.

“No,” she said. “What if there’s a hole or something, what if they fell?” She avoided the word ‘trap.’

“We all need to be looking out for anything strange,” Ellie said. “I’m with Robert. We all go in together, or none of us go in.”

Margaret didn’t reply. She just kept climbing up the rocks, gaining steadily on the door in the cliff side. The emergency exit. The shanty. Whatever it was.

It was early now, and they had lots of bright, direct sunlight. Margaret kept her eyes peeled for signs that there was more to this mine site than just a hole-in-the-wall. Her eyes scanned the underbrush for bits of ancient foundations like had been visible at the north end of the lake. Or the bits of rust that tinged the rocks where old tools weathered away and disintegrated into iron flecks that bled into the stones.

But so far she saw nothing.

It bothered Margaret that the wood that boarded up this supposed mine entrance was so new. Perhaps it was, once, a part of the original Drake expedition. But there was no question in her mind that there had been someone using it. Someone, she thought, who could be creeping around, untying canoes in the dark, and whispering in the night. Someone who was trying to unsettle them.

To what end, though?

Had Frank known about all of this ahead of time? Maybe he had a friend up in these parts. Maybe he was trying to teach Margaret a lesson about “reality” as he so often put it. Would Mom go along with that?

“Alright,” Ellie said. They approached the entrance to the little hovel. “Let’s do this. Who’s first?”

Margaret approached the rough doorway and pulled aside the too-new boards that covered it. The pale morning light seeped in through the opening she made, illuminating the darkness in watery streaks of gray. Her eyes took in the living space slowly. The room was tiny, mostly bare, cut directly from the granite of the shield. A pile thin twigs, dried moss, and torn fabric lay balled-up in one corner. Tinder, maybe? Or maybe mice were the most recent occupants here, and Margaret had nothing to worry about.

The stone floor didn’t leave much room for evidence like footprints. But Margaret couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been here. Had Frank and crew disturbed it when they were investigating yesterday? Would they have broken down the door, peeked inside, and decided to look further up the cliff? Or had they crossed the threshold, as she was about to do now.

Margaret stepped into the cave. That’s what it was, a cave. The cool granite seemed to reflect her body heat back at her, making the little room slightly warmer than it had been, outside in the morning air. She crouched next to the little camp stove. There was no accompanying bottle of propane or white gas. Whoever had been using it wasn’t using it anymore. The hinges were so rusted that Margaret doubted the lid would open anymore.

The sleeping bag was in a similar state of disuse. It was flattened by age and deflated by mice. Tiny tears in the side showed where rodents had pulled the stuffing out and made off with their treasure. There wouldn’t be much warmth offered from a bag like that. Maybe she was being paranoid after all.

A draft of warm air swirled around her. Robert stood behind her and shone his flashlight along the walls. “I don’t think this is connected to anything.”

“No,” Ellie said. “It’s just a room.”

The draft stirred again. Margaret looked around the walls for a crack or a seam, somewhere the air could be coming from. “Do you guys feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“The air,” Margaret said. “It’s moving. And it’s warm. Crouch down here.”

The three of them knelt on the stone floor, their hands held out before them like dousing rods. Cool air from outside sucked past their hands, through their fingers. Toward the sleeping bag, Margaret thought.

Robert seemed to have the same idea. He extended his flashlight hand and flicked back the deflated bag using the end of the Maglite. Margaret sucked in a breath so sharply it hurt her teeth. There, beneath the ratty old military surplus sack, was a trap door.

“I think we know where they’re hiding,” Robert said.

Ellie held a hand up to the edge of the door. “There’s definitely warm air coming from down there. Why is it warm, though?”

“Probably goes below the frost line,” Margaret said. “This time of year, it’s warmed below ground than above.”

“They’ve probably got a fire going,” Robert added.

Suddenly Ellie pulled her hand back. She scrambled backwards out of the cave and into the sunlight. Margaret followed her, her unease magnified by her sister’s stiff posture. “What’s wrong?”

Ellie didn’t answer. She stared into the trees, the corners of her eyes pinched in concentration. It was as if she was counting the trees, cataloging them, making sure every one of them was present and accounted for. Or perhaps, that there were no extras.

Robert stumbled out after them. He tripped on the lip of the cave and banged his shin on one of the protruding boards. “Shit.”

“You okay?”

There was a gouge in the fabric of his pants, and a deep stain bloomed out below the tear. Margaret saw the bent nail sticking out of the board he’d collided with.

“For fuckssake,” Robert said. “Now I’m going to get tetanus.”

“You aren’t up on your vaccinations?”

“I don’t vaccinate,” Robert said. “I don’t want adult-onset autism.”

“Shut up,” Margaret said. “Don’t you need to have your shots up to date for work?”

“I’ll probably be fine,” Robert said. “Hurts like a mother, though.”

“Do you really think they’re down there?” Ellie asked suddenly.

“Thanks for your concern,” Robert said. “Both of you. Real sweet.”

Ellie ignored him, eyes still intent on the trees. “Just think about it.”

“Where else would they be, Ell?” Margaret felt another wave of panic cresting inside her. The undertow of questions the flooded out of her mind in the face of primal, animal fear.

Ellie fought with herself. Margaret could see the same fear mirrored in her sister. She wanted to say something. Margaret knew that feeling. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to break the rules. She didn’t want to make things worse with speculation. But Margaret had already broken the pact. She had already opened the door to panic. To hysteria.

“The sleeping bag,” Ellie said finally.

“Yeah,” Robert said. “Clever.”

“We had to move it to get to the door,” Ellie said.

Then Margaret understood. All the hairs on her body stood on end, then. She said, “Then somebody had to put it back.”